Writing children’s stories is imaginative, expressive, and lots of fun. It also requires an understanding of what makes a children’s book successful. With practice, your stories come to life with memorable characters, an engaging story, and age-appropriate design.
When you write children’s stories, feature a child as the main character who is slightly older than the reader. The child drives the action in the story and solves the problem themselves without the help of an adult or another character. Despite a flaw or desire, they are likable and relatable to children. Of course, not all children’s books include children (or animals) in the story, but when they do, feature them and let them be the hero.
In the series of Clifford books, Clifford’s flaw is his largess. He wants to help, but it often causes trouble when he does. Through his ingenuity and by virtue of his strengths (his size), he is able to come to the rescue and “save the day.” Both pictures and words feature his lovable nature and readers always root for him. The timelessness of the stories makes Clifford a perennial favorite.
Regardless of the target age of a book, stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Set the stage by introducing the character, the setting, and the problem the main character must solve. Show the main character attempting to solve the problem with failures large and small along the way. Escalate the problem until the main character has no choice but to solve it. End with a successful resolution to the problem in a surprising way.
Famously, Max of Where the Wild Things Are begins with the problem – he is sent to his bedroom. He takes us on a journey through his imagination to a place that celebrates his wildness until he realizes that he wants to return home to the place where “someone loves him best of all.”
Length and Target age
Board books are generally under 250 words and appropriate for the 2-5 set. They are often filled with ABCs or 123s, single words or simple sentences to 4-line rhymes on each page with brightly colored illustrations. Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle (Author) and Jill McElmurry (Illustrator) or A Rehoboth ABC by Nancy Sakaduski fit this category with tightly constructed rhymes.
The majority of picture books published traditionally contain less than 500 words and are geared for children ages 3-5 or 6-8. The language and complexity of the story determine the appropriate age for the story. While not impossible, it’s difficult to appeal to 3 and 8-year-olds at the same time. Search Amazon for children’s books in the desired age category to get the feel of each category. Here are two examples.
Longer books are either easy-reader or early chapter books with appropriate grade-level vocabulary. Scholastic excels at providing books appropriate for any age with reading-level books as a standard of their offerings.
Early chapter books launch children into the love of stories with limited use of pictures and illustrations allowing older children to create the scene in their own mind. Many are writing in a series, like The Magic Tree House.
Children’s picture books are typically 28 or 32 pages. Once your manuscript is complete, make a dummy book. A dummy book is a layout of the words on each page most easily done on paper or in a graphics program like InDesign. Create the layout so the words on the right page compel the reader to turn to the next page.
In Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, he ends many right-hand pages with the phrase, “but he was still hungry.” Any curious child needs to know what he eats next.
Do’s and Don’ts
Don’t preach or have an obvious moral.
Do edit your book to make every word count. Seek out critique groups for children’s writers to get feedback from unbiased writers.
Do go to writing conferences, take writing classes, and learn the craft of writing to make your book the best it can be.
Do study the children’s writing market to stay on top of trends and movers and shakers in the children’s book industry.
Do join SCBWI – The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for resources, events, guidance, and support as a children’s book writer.
Ready to publish a children’s book? Start here!